Kanhaiya: The New Che in Kerala Campuses?

Johny ML

A small report in the corner of a national newspaper informs me that in Kerala’s college campuses Kanhaiya is the new Che.

Curiosity leads me further into the news, and I find that the Bolivian romantic revolutionary isn’t entirely wiped out from the memories of the young radicals, but he has literally been screened out from the trendy T-shirts they wear. In his place, according to the report, Kanhaiya has been serigraphed in.

Of late, the coopting enthusiasts world over, just for the heck of difference, have demoted Che from T-shirts to bathroom slippers and underwear. Though the wearer of these kinky stuffs may feel a bit of revolution in wrong places of his/her body, Che’s fate has been a little different in Kerala. Along with the doyens of Marxism, Leninism and all denominations of the left, Che is forced to appear even with some of the playful gods of the Hindu pantheon in flex boards during festival seasons. Blame it on the collapse of the equidistance theory of the dominant left in Kerala. If Krishna could, why shouldn’t Che promote a local Uriyadi? Interestingly, Krishna in the North is known as Krishna Kanhaiya.


It may be slightly ironical to have Kanhaiya Kumar, the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union President who is out on conditional bail for six months after spending almost three weeks in New Delhi’s Tihar Jail on grave sedition charges, over to Kerala for whatever purposes, including the impending state election campaign. When he was in prison and the JNU students were erupting in protests against the Narendra Modi government, the glaring lack of enthusiasm in Kerala campuses dominated by the Students Federation of India, the students’ wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), to support the cause of Kanhaiya was felt and written about.

The cooptation of Kanhaiya by the national leadership of the CPM is a very intelligent and timely move. Kanhaiya, like his mythical namesake, is now a darling of everyone in the North. From the Aam Aadmi Party to Samajwadi Party, from the Congress to the Rashtriya Janata Dal, everyone seems to be vying with each other to win over the young man. Logically, Kanhaiya could go only with the left, as he belongs to the All India Students Federation (AISF), the students’ wing of the CPI. When it comes to the elections and crises, like warring brothers, both CPM and CPI join hands against the common enemy. Kanhaiya in their larger scheme of things is only a pawn for the time being.

However, Kanhaiya is the latest craze. If Kerala students dare to wear the picture of a seditionist on their chests, wrist bands and caps exactly the way once the world flaunted Che, it would be a visual and cultural challenge not only to the state Bharatiya Janata Party unit, but also to the party President Amit Shah, who is expecting some magic in Kerala with the newly elected, hardcore right winger Kummanam Rajasekharan at the helm of the state unit. Already the 'Azadi' clarion call in the typical style of Kanhaiya has been touted as the new (national) anthem of the dissidents in India.

Ever since Kanhaiya, from the steps of the Administrative Block of the JNU, raised this slogan after coming out of jail (and also before going to jail), a new sense of camaraderie has developed among the protestors with the Azadi slogan running as a connecting tune or rhythm. Recently, when the artists in Bengaluru claimed their rights over the state owned Venkatappa Gallery, the sloganeering by the veteran artists was too conspicuous with Kanhaiya’s Azadi clamoring. What we understand from this is a simple lesson: Kanhaiya is the most adoptable political property today. None really points out that Kanhaiya learnt the rhythm and spirit of his Azadi slogans from the Kashmiri protestors.


If Kanhaiya could reorganize the wordings of the Kashmiri sloganeering against the atrocities of the Indian troops, to suit his purpose of forwarding a patriotic revolution in this country, then one should take too much of a cynical approach to the invitation extended to Kanhaiya to visit Kerala by the state and national leadership of the CPM or largely the Left front. But what makes the news of Kerala boys and girls wearing the T-shirts with the picture of Kanhaiya (Rohit Vemula would also follow for the hardcore radicals) important is the shift of both the sartorial and politico-cultural discourse within Kerala. While one could see the trendy Kanhaiya T-shirts in Kerala campuses as an obvious atonement for their early apathy and hesitation to stand up with him and his fellow students during the JNU Spring, one could also see that the youth, however politicized or de-politicized, would definitely go for the 'different' and they would assert their existence in 'difference.' If Che had single handedly flattened the world in terms of fashion trends of the radicals, Kanhaiya’s overshadowing of Che today should be seen as the conventionalization of Che and the disgust and awkwardness the youth feel when they see the eternal revolutionary getting force-crowded into the Hindu Pantheon.

Now, with Kanhaiya T-shirts, we should say, Che is in good company than he has been in the flex boards near junctions and local temple grounds. Coming to the sartorial shift of the Kerala youth, the stress that we have been noticing on the residual Hip-Hop style with the waistline of jeans going down and down, and the very latest style of sporting a thick beard and upturned moustache (the look of jobless youth in Europe amid the continent’s economic downturn over the past few years, which became a fashion statement), that we falsely believe is an outcome of the movie Premam, has now shifted to something more rooted: a T-shirt with Kanhaiya picture that goes with a pair of jeans. In the realm of the politico-cultural discourse, Kanhaiya T-shirts show a different pointer that means you could hold the youth in campuses for the time being with your political ideology and make them partisans of your vested ideological interests. But when the floodgates of the revolution are opened, they would opt for the romantic divers, surfers and rafters than the seasoned pirates.

(Photo credit: Prachatai via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND welovepandas via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA)